The Beginning Of The End Of Duolingo

April 5th, 2023 - Kevin

Imagine you hire the world’s best architects to design your house, and after years of meticulous planning and work, they build you an ugly house. They notice the disappointment on your face, and say “well, it’s not a complete waste of space.”

Likewise, Luis von Ahn, the CEO of Duolingo said “A significant portion of our users use it because it’s fun and it’s not a complete waste of time.” Is that seriously all you got? Nearly $200 million in venture capital and the main selling point for your language learning app is that “it’s not a complete waste of time.”

In the same article, their Chief Revenue Officer. Bob Meese, Duolingo’s 42-year-old chief revenue officer, has been studying Duolingo Spanish for more than six months. In response to the question, “¿Hablas español?” he freezes, then says, “Could you repeat that?”

In another article, the Chief Product Officer mentions all of the levers that they implemented to kickstart growth from 2018 onwards. There was no mention of improving the course content or making the learning content itself more engaging.

Not exactly the shining example for C-level executives of a language learning company.

I tried Duolingo a few times over the years because it was the only language learning app I had heard of. I must admit I was incredibly disappointed to learn they had blown over $200 million dollars of investment into building this product. The quality of the education was low, and the only redeeming quality was that they figured out how to make the app addictive - by turning it into a game with language learning as an afterthought.

Where did everything go wrong?

I think the fatal mistake was raising too much money without a clear plan of making it back. In the first 5 years, Duolingo built and grew the app without concern for charging any money, falsely believing that investors would keep the tap of money flowing into their coffers. Eventually, their patience ran out, and Leela Sturdy of CapitalG essentially threatened Luis von Ahn that if he didn’t figure out how to make money, then he would be replaced.

Investor money is never free. By taking money, you give up control. Investors are fine with a few years of zero return, but eventually, they’ll want to get their money back and more. To them, it doesn’t matter that your company teaches languages to better the world. It only matters that there is a large group of engaged users to whom you can show advertisements and sell subscriptions.

It’s no surprise that Duolingo took out many of the features that helped language learning: forums, spaced-repetition systems, ad-free and unlimited learning, etc. Anything that didn’t directly lead to more money was culled. In their place, there is now a heart system that penalizes wrong answers, a flurry of ads pushing users to subscribe, and a plethora of dopamine-inducing gamification features to hook users.

It’s also no surprise that Duolingo has released apps for music and math in quick succession. After all, the educational content doesn’t matter that much, and the gamification aspect is easily repeatable across genres

It’s frustrating to see such a waste of potential. There are so many smart people working on a project that could significantly impact the way people learn languages, and now it’s reduced to a dopamine-inducing game. On a larger scale, it makes sense: education itself is difficult to monetize because learning is hard. On the other hand, games are addictive, and people are willing to pay a lot for them.

Perhaps, if the company didn’t take so much investor money up front, they wouldn’t have to chase growth and revenues at all costs. Perhaps, they would have been able to find a way to balance the gamification and language learning aspects better.

I hope they will be able to change course, but it seems too late. They’ve recorded losses in the entire history of the company to reinvest into more growth. At this point, they are probably doubling down on gamification and monetization, rather than step back and refocusing on education.

I actually hold Luis von Ahn with high regard. He’s a bright guy, and he had an interesting idea at the beginning to democratize language learning by crowdsourcing translations from learners to sell them to big companies. But I also think he’s kicking himself at night for leading the company down this path.

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